Tuesday December 22, 2020 | VICTORIA, BC [Updated 8:50 am Dec 23, 2020]
by Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., editor | Island Social Trends
Island Health has administered the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine to some of their health-care staff in the Greater Victoria area today, December 22. There were 1,950 doses received in the initial shipment.
One of the first shots was received by Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry and also by Dr Richard Stanwick, Chief Medical Health Officer, Island Health.
Immunization clinics will continue through this week in Greater Victoria. Immunization clinics for staff and physicians will expand across Island Health in the coming weeks, as more doses are received, it was stated today by Island Health.
This is the mRNA-type vaccine product by Pfizer-BioNTech, as arrived in time for the start of this week (as mentioned by Dr Bonnie Henry in recent days). That’s the virus which requires ultra-low temperatures (below -70°C) and should not be jostled around much — hence the centralized immunization locations for this first round of the virus.
Island Health communications has provided media with video and still images of workers receiving the first vaccines, some as included in this article. Mid-afternoon, media questions were taken via Zoom call by Dr Richard Stanwick, Chief Medical Health Officer, Island Health.
Acknowledging the role of media:
Dr Stanwick today thanked media for getting the message out about the pandemic this year, saying that “this can only be beaten by us pulling together as a community”.
Island Health’s top doctor said: “The community does trust you and seeing the sources of truth. Thank you for all you’re doing in terms of bringing the message forward, and making people clear about what is happening and putting it in a proper context. Thank you and I wish you all a very happy holiday season.”
Variant strain of the virus:
Dr Stanwick is concerned about the recently discovered new strain of the COVID-19 virus. It has a 17-mutation change in its genetic code which he calls “a relatively dramatic difference”. There’s a slight change in the spike the virus uses to attach itself to the cell, he explained today. “That’s more effective in terms of spread. But the virus is still effective and immunization should continue,” he says.
“We’re going to continue vaccinating with great zeal,” said Dr Stanwick today, given that the current Pfizer vaccine (and the upcoming Moderna vaccine, if approved by Health Canada) are considered to be still effective against SARS-CoV-2 even as it mutates.
Mutation of the virus:
Throughout this pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (aka COVID-19) has been mutating. It has accumulated about one or two mutations each month. Viruses always mutate, and the BC Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC) has been keeping an eye on that.
But this new variant called B.1.1.7 has acquired mutations much quicker than scientists expect. Eight of those mutations occur in a critical part of the virus, called the spike protein, which reaches out for the purpose of binding to human cells so it can replicate inside our human cells. That’s what causes the COVID-19 infection.
Canada has blocked incoming flights from the UK where B.1.1.7 has been active in recent weeks.
Well-being of health care staff:
Island Social Trends today asked Dr Stanwick how Island Health medical and frontline staff are doing during the pandemic, and how the health authority is addressing personnel strain and overload.
“How public health is helping out our acute care system is by keeping the load light in the hospital,” said Dr Stanwick. He pointed out how Island Health went “many months” with no cases within their acute care system. That is in part because the community transmission was being tracked to keep the cases down, he explained. As of today there are eight new COVID cases in Island Health. There were five people in hospital yesterday (just one in ICU).
“How we can keep hospitals and our our acute care system going — our doctors and nurses from getting too stressed out — is by keeping COVID light into the community,” said Stanwick. “That’s where up front work is so important,” he said with reference to contact tracing after COVID cases are confirmed by a positive test.
People doing the contact tracing — often late into the night, explained Island Health’s top doctor. He said that’s so the system can continue to provide treatment for other surgical procedures and treatments such as for heart attacks and cancer and elective surgeries.
Contact tracers not only find people who may have been exposed but also keep tabs on people who are ordered to be in self-isolation due to exposure. Yesterday there were 9,651 people self-isolating under public health watch across BC.
More surgeries during COVID:
“We did more surgeries in the last couple of months under COVID than before we had COVID,” says Dr Stanwick. “This just speaks to what you can accomplish if you can keep virus low in the community and therefore out of our system.”
BC Health Minister Adrian Dix launched a ‘surgical renewal’ in May as a program by which all health authorities could catch up on surgeries (postponed or rescheduled) missed by people requiring procedures for conditions not related to COVID. An update was given in July, and short updates are delivered by Minister Dix weekly during COVID media briefings.
“We’re not experiencing the same sort of stress that the lower mainland is. But I think everybody is still anxious,” said Stanwick. He added that he thinks “people would like to be immune to the virus”.
Doctors and nurses on the front line:
Stanwick acknowledges the danger of COVID: “We have seen some very bad outcomes where nurses and doctors have died of this particular virus” — referring to the health-care community in general, not Island Health specifically.
“I’ll be candid,” said Dr Stanwick. “I’m really worried about what January is going to look like”. The concern is about community spread. “If people let their guard down over the holiday season and socialize like they did with Halloween, we will see another spike.”
There had been a spike in cases within the two-week incubation period after Thanksgiving in October, and there was a similar spike two weeks after the November 11 Remembrance Day (even though people were asked not to gather).
A time to make wise decisions:
Timing is so important. “We finally got a vaccine on the horizon at a time when the virus might be given a second chance to cause horrible mischief,” said Dr Stanwick.
“That’s probably the biggest ask of the population. We’re just about around turning that corner. With a product with a 94% response rate to that vaccine, we will probably start seeing a significant impact by late spring, early summer, in terms of the impact of being control COVID,” says the Island Health chief medical health officer.
That’s because “so many people will be immune through immunization rather than natural infection”.
Doing your part:
And some further plain-language pep talk from Island Health’s top doc: “This is one of those times when we’re just about there. And then holiday season is upon us,” says Dr Stanwick who pondered today “whether people will take to heart what Dr Henry keeps asking people about keeping their bubbles small over the season”.
“That’s going to help the doctors and nurses more than anything else. We can send them chocolates, but they’d much prefer that you just stay home and eat the chocolates with your loved ones (in a COVID-safe bubble).”
Island Health has loaned staff:
Low COVID in Island Health has allowed Dr Stanwick’s health authority here on Vancouver Island to help out in the Northern Health Authority. It’s the spirit of Christmas, but has been going on for months in 2020.
“We have taken some individuals who required intensive care treatment into our IC units. If there is major trauma we have a transport system in BC to move clients around. Because we’ve been able to keep numbers low on the island, and had capacity in ICU, we helped northern out,” Dr Stanwick told Island Social Trends today.
“I did loan out one of our medical health officers for two months to Fraser Health authority to assist. We may have (loaned out) at least one infection control practitioner to Fraser Health as well….and received patients from elsewhere.”